Interview with Dr. Robert Emmons

July 15, 2015 Sarah Payne

Lest you categorize the idea of gratitude as “fluff,” or not worthy of attention in business, consider this statement from Robert Emmons: “Gratitude is the high-octane fuel without which we’d be in relational ruin. I mean, organizations, families, societies would crumble.” Gratitude literally powers our every interaction. Anyone concerned with employee well-being cannot afford to overlook it.

You may have had the chance to see Robert Emmons’ session on the science of gratitude at WorkHuman last month. He’s the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. He is also the author of the books, Gratitude Works! and Thanks!, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.

He was gracious enough to dive a little deeper and answer our questions on how we can promote gratitude at work and its positive impact on employee happiness, engagement, even sleep!

1. What drew you to the positive psychology movement?

First of all, gratitude science predates the positive psychology (PP) movement. It developed quite independently of it. The founders of positive psychology brought gratitude into the inner circle when they realized its power and potential.

To be honest, I was drawn to PP mostly for myself. This sounds terribly self-centered, let me explain. If we’re honest, there’s a reason why we devote ourselves to the topics that we do. There’s a little bit of us in everything we study.

I need gratitude. I am forgetful. I need to be reminded of the necessity of gratitude. I needed to remember all those who make my life easier, who do for me what I can’t do for myself. It’s not just a nice sentiment, a warm fuzzy feeling, or a strategy or tactic. It’s the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves, and we did not get to where we are in life by ourselves. So gratitude is the most accurate and honest approach to life. I want to live in truth, not live in the illusion of self-sufficiency.

2. How do you define gratitude?

I like this definition: Gratitude is an affirmation of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. So it emerges from two stages of information processing—affirming and recognizing. Gratitude is the recognition that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift. It is a response to all that has been given.

I think the concept of “celebration” is crucial for any complete definition of gratitude. Gratitude is essentially a celebration, especially salient in the context of the Globoforce focus on recognizing the worth and value of an employee. Gratitude is a celebration of goodness, of affirming the good in our lives and realizing that it is not there by random or by accident. Someone has intended it for our good. It is also undeserved. So you could say that gratitude is a celebration of undeserved kindness.


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